Visitors to the middle Florida Keys can enjoy an immersive experience with reef fish, invertebrates, stingrays and even sharks, without entering the ocean, at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, a marine life attraction that opened July 1 in Marathon.
The signature feature of the multimillion-dollar facility, located at the foot of the Vaca Cut Bridge at 11710 Overseas Highway, is a coral reef exhibit and shark habitat housed in a massive 200,000-gallon interconnected saltwater aquarium for viewing.
As a hands-on interactive learning center, the unique attraction strives to inform visitors about the importance of marine conservation while they discover the complex underwater habitats of the Florida Keys.
Following an instructional presentation, participants in the flagship 90-minute encounter immerse themselves in the tank to hover over a mock coral reef structure and interact with tropical reef fish, rays and other reef-dwelling marine species that are part of the in-tank ecosystem.
The encounter utilizes tethered diving technology, enabling individuals without any prior scuba experience to enjoy the in-water opportunity with supervision from trained professional dive instructors.
A large fortified Plexiglas window divides the coral reef tank from a shark and predatory fish tank, and participants can hand-feed these creatures through underwater feeding ports in the wall.
Other interactive aquarium encounters include shallow touch tanks that feature starfish, conchs and horseshoe crabs, and allow feeding de-barbed stingrays and docile baby nurse sharks.
At each encounter, a staff marine biologist provides educational introduction and guidance.
Visitors also can snorkel in a shallow protected lagoon, enjoy refreshments from an on-site concession café, browse the open-air gift shop and even purchase a video of their experience.
Classroom space is available for school groups, special events and corporate retreats.
Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with planned extended or special-event hours during summer months.
General full-day admission rates are $20 per adult, $15 for children age 12 and under, and free for kids 3 and under.
Florida residents, active military and online ticket purchasers receive a 10 percent discount.
Annual park admission passes are available for $75.
Interactive in-water experiences are priced from $25 to $150 depending on the age and number of people in a group.